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Australia Eyes Asian Tourism Boom as Oprah Reveals Trip Plans

A loan boat decorated with national flags sails past the Opera House in Sydney, Australia (File Photo)
A loan boat decorated with national flags sails past the Opera House in Sydney, Australia (File Photo)

U.S. talk show hostess Oprah Winfrey may well help revive Australia's ailing tourism sector. The U.S. billionaire is to film some of the final episodes of her show at the Sydney Opera House, and 300 American audience members are coming with her on an all expenses paid trip. But as Phil Mercer reports from Sydney, Australia's tourism industry increasingly is looking to Asia for business.

Entertainer Oprah Winfrey has been telling the world about her excitement over plans to film several episodes of her show in Australia.

This wave of excitement has reached Australia's parliament, where the tourism minister, Martin Ferguson, said Oprah's trip is a great publicity coup.

"She said that her Australian visit would represent the ultimate adventure," said Ferguson. "That is exceptionally important because Oprah has been named by Forbes Magazine as the most important celebrity in the world. That represents a major endorsement of the Australian tourism industry."

Winfrey is bringing 300 American fans to watch the filming next month, on a trip this being partly subsidized by the Australian government.

Her visit comes as Australian tourism is repositioning itself to take advantage of growing interest among travelers in Asia. The switch in focus was forced in part because of economic uncertainty in Australia's traditional markets - the United States and Britain.

"The Asian economies are really growing," said Andrew McEvoy, the managing director of Tourism Australia, the government's marketing agency. "China is becoming much more important for Australia as we go on. We are seeing about 20 percent out of China this year. It was a market of about 350,000 people a year. It will go to over 410,000 this year. So, places like China, [South] Korea but all near-neighbors like Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia are all growing for Australia."

While most Australian industries are booming, the tourism sector has been having a tough few years. The soaring Australian dollar has made travel here far less attractive for tourists in Britain and the United States. In an industry that employs half a million people, the pain is real.

Industry analyst Tony Charters says trouble overseas have also has an effect.

"The tourism industry right through the early 2000s just became a bit punch-drunk [suffered from blows] from the impacts of SARS [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome] and avian flu, and obviously September 11, [the] Bali bombings," said Charters. "At that point we thought, you know, things can't get any worse but the reality is what the industry is dealing with now is actually worse than what we were dealing with back in those early years of 2000s."

While the country is seeking to attract Asian vacationers, there are concerns about the lack of big-spending visitors from the U.S. and Britain, whose arrivals so far in 2010 are down on previous years.

David Beirman, a senior lecturer in tourism at the University of Technology Sydney, thinks the Winfrey visit will bring new vitality to the industry.

"Whoever came up with that in Tourism Australia deserves a medal or an Order of Australia. It is a brilliant opportunity because she has a massive following in the United States and it is interesting in America, Australia is probably the number one aspirational destination," he said. The problem is that aspiration does not necessarily translate into millions of Americans coming to Australia."

Winfrey arrives in early December. Tourism officials hope the queen of daytime television will be able to sprinkle some celebrity magic over an industry that is important to the national economy.

During the visit, Winfrey will film at least two episodes of her talk show, which is seen in more than 140 countries around the world, including China, India and Vietnam.